Marina Abramović Responds to #TheRacistIsPresent Controversy

Somehow (well, I suppose through ignorance or oversight on the part of the author/whoever edited early drafts) a very gross passage, allegedly from Marina Abramović’s diary from 1979, made its way into an uncorrected proof of her memoir — and thus people reading that uncorrected proof of the memoir were rightly taken aback, engendering #TheRacistIsPresent on social media. Abramović has now responded to the anger over the passage in her book, in which, while in Australia, she described members of the Aboriginal Pitjantjatjara tribe as “not just the oldest race in Australia; they are the oldest race on the planet. They look like dinosaurs.” She’d continued, supposedly in her diary — then ultimately in her memoir proof:

They are really strange and different, and they should be treated as living treasures. Yet they are not…But at the same time, when you first meet them, you have to put effort into it. For one thing, to Western eyes they look terrible. Their faces are like no other faces on earth; they have big torsos (just one bad result of their encounter with Western civilisation is a high sugar diet that bloats their bodies) and sticklike legs.

Now, according to the Guardian, the publishers of the book, Walk Through Walls, which bills itself as a “vivid and powerful rendering of the unparalleled life of an extraordinary artist,” have said the passage is being removed from final versions of the memoir. It was in a statement on Facebook that the artist clarified that the words were not written today — but in that aforementioned diary — and do not reflect her current views:

I have the greatest respect for Aborigine people, to whom I owe everything. The time I spent with members of the Pijantjatjara and Pintupi tribes in Australia was a transformative experience for me, and one that has deeply and indelibly informed my entire life and art. The description contained in an early, uncorrected proof of my forthcoming book is taken from my diaries and reflects my initial reaction to these people when I encountered them for the very first time way back in 1979. It does not represent the understanding and appreciation of Aborigines that I subsequently acquired through immersion in their world and carry in my heart today.

Obviously, in 1979, racism often went far more unchecked, and casually colonial approaches to art by white artists were far less critically problematized; it’s very possible that three decades later, her views have indeed changed, and it’s hard to hold someone accountable for a random, ugly thought they scribbled in a diary 30 years ago. Howeverthe fact that this could have made its way into the actual book seems to exhibit a continued ignorance toward just how racist these words are. (Unless the purpose of the passage’s presence in the book was to exhibit, then dissect the initial, reductive and exoticizing thoughts.)

Katie West, an artist of Yindjibarndi descent who “aims to contribute to the collective knowledge that defines Aboriginal identity,” told the Guardian:

The Indigenous Australian population is made up of individuals with their own lived experiences. In this excerpt, it seems this hasn’t crossed Abramović’s mind, and given the nature of her work [much of which was informed by her stay in Australia], this is quite baffling.